Oakland County Parks looks back at 2014, makes plans for year ahead

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 25, 2015

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OAKLAND COUNTY — Last year was another successful year for Oakland County Parks and Recreation, according to the department’s annual report.

The recently released 2014 wrap-up detailed information on the county’s 13 parks, facilities and amenities, and mobile initiatives and countless recreation programs.

Last year’s summary doesn’t look all that different from the one before it: Attendance stayed at right around 2 million visitors, according to Dan Stencil, executive officer for the Oakland Parks and Recreation Commission.

“It was very similar. I think the cooler summer was a benefit for the golfing and campgrounds, but it hurt our numbers a little bit at those water parks,” he said. “The dog parks still seemed to be popular, and just general day-use hiking, biking and walking still remain very strong.”

According to Sue Wells, manager of parks and recreation operations, those biking and hiking trails are popular even now in the cold winter weather.

“There’s a sledding hill at Waterford Oaks to participate in, and at Addison Oaks we just added fat-tire mountain biking, which is a trend now where riders ride in the snow,” she said. “Addison Oaks has been one of the more popular destinations in the state for avid bike riders. We have a lot of bike races that go on there in the summer.”

Admission fees and charges for services from those visitors make up just over 37 percent of the parks department’s total revenue. Just over half comes from taxes collected, and the rest comes from other places, such as planned use of the fund balance, investment income and miscellaneous sources. The total came to about $22,860,000 for fiscal year 2014.

The biggest chunk of that revenue is paid out each year in salaries, and last year that accounted for just over 34 percent of the budget. After that, contractual services came in just under 29 percent in 2014.

But Stencil said that the department’s goal is to constantly improve the customer experience, and to that end, the contractual end of things is expected to change a bit in 2015. For the first time, concessions at Waterford Oaks and Groveland Oaks will be turned over to in-house staff instead of private contractors.

The move, he said, will help the department to be more hands-on when it comes to quality control.

“To the public, they view those contractors as being us. If we’re going to have complaints, I’d like to be able to handle it on our end,” he said.

A food and beverage coordinator has been hired to manage those concession operations, as well as any contracts still in place at other locations such as the parks facilities that host formal events, including weddings.

Also in the works for this year, according to Wells, are preparations for a permanent winter recreation facility at Waterford Oaks. While that was slated to happen for winter 2015, the department couldn’t find a private partner in time to team up with to make it happen.

“Right now there’s a request for proposals out for a design competition, so that issue is not dead,” she said. “Sometimes, to get to the end, it takes a bit longer than all of us want, but I think it’s something that we see great value in.”

During 2014, there were plenty of projects that did get off the ground, however. The Oakland County Market gained more popularity than ever, according to Stencil, and programming is added all the time to draw attendance.

“I think we’re still scratching the surface,” he said. “We had some culinary demos this winter — some chefs from The Lark, the head chef from Dorsey schools — and those have become very popular, with about 40-50 people in attendance. That’s been a partnership with Edible WOW magazine. People who probably wouldn’t come to the market come out for the opportunity to mix and mingle and sample the food.”

He added that the market, which is open just on Saturdays through the winter, will be open three days a week beginning May 1.

As promised in 2013, the department expanded its programming in central urban locations last year with mobile recreation programs.

“Actually, there are two major program initiatives: one in the summer called Oakland County Hot Spots that we launch when temperatures get over 90 degrees for several days. We give notice to a community of where we’ll be, and we set up water inflatables,” said Stencil, noting that a similar program is designed for the winter with snow shoes and cross country skis. Both programs are free to the public.

In 2014, the county celebrated 40 years since the opening of the bicycle motocross track, making it the longest-running track of its kind in the country, as well as the successful launch of the new sport footgolf and seven different awards from the Michigan Recreation and Park Association.

Residents could see the parks’ appeal for themselves during the first-ever Pics of the Parks contest, held last summer. The promotion drew more than 80 entries from talented photographers who took snapshots of their favorite scenes at various county parks. The winning entries were chosen by none other than Grammy-winning performer — and art collector — Tony Bennett.

All that and more should be expected in the coming year, Stencil said. In 2015, the department has added a 30-foot inflatable water slide to its collection, along with a 300-foot zip line, both of which can appear at summer festivals. The zip line, he said, will likely be a staple at Addison Oaks, as well.

They’re also working on becoming the largest parks and recreation program in the area to earn its accreditation through the National Recreation and Park Association. At the same time, the department is applying for the Gold Medal Award from the same organization.

That will take them through 2016, when Oakland County Parks and Recreation celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“Each week we’ll have a spotlight on something that we’ve done as an agency that was innovative because we’ve done some pretty unique things,” said Stencil. “We try to stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not.”

For more information or to see the report, visit www.destinationoakland.com.

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